As always, Timothy was both entertaining and informative, and won the hearts of the audience by answering the question right at the beginning of the lecture. And what was the answer? EVERYTHING.
He then went on to give us a quick romp through the last several billion years, from the Big Bang (“In the beginning there was nothing, then it exploded”- Sir Terry Pratchett) through volcanoes, underwater thermal vents, single celled organisms, and onwards to modern day agriculture and plant cultivation.
As a slight aside, the two things that fascinated me about this part of his talk were (1) the primordial soup theory has been discredited in favour of underwater thermal vents (harrumph – I liked the idea of the soup!) and (2) no-one knows how agriculture started, but bizarrely it started independently in eight separate places around the world at exactly the same time. Now isn’t that weird?
Anyway, back on to topic. Tim then went on to talk about cultivated plants. Did you know that the potato was cultivated in South America over 7,000 years ago and is actually a hybrid of four different species of solanum? And given that it takes 19 weeks to grow out of sight underground, how on earth did anyone come up with the idea of growing it?
And more importantly, if it wasn’t for crop growing, most of us wouldn’t be here as our planet could only support a population of 50 million if plants were solely grown in the wild.
Now, of course, we don’t just grow plants for food. We also grow them for pleasure, for medicines (I didn’t know that one of the main breast cancer chemotherapy drugs taxotere actually comes from the English Yew), and even for bio fuels.
So what does the future hold? The most important areas of research are into new sources of drugs and more energy intense food sources. Apparently there is a new non-toxic variety of lupin which has very nutritious seeds, but which needs further work to become palatable, I can’t wait!
So without plants we quite simply would not be here. And if we don’t conserve the biodiversity that we already have we could be missing out on valuable new drugs, foodstuffs and energy sources. Plants are indeed EVERYTHING to us.